Bulls close out the year with a loss to Milwaukee, 123-102

Milwaukee came into town to snatch a victory from the Bulls, 123-102

The Buck didn't stop here. The way it looks, the Milwaukee Bucks might not stop anywhere. At least before winning an NBA championship. The Bucks Monday sauntered into and out of the United Center with a surgical 123-102 victory over the Bulls.

The Bucks hit Chicago like a reflection of the month of December, a mild beginning for the Bulls with a 7-6 record that was frozen stiff by a late blast from the north. Khris Middleton had 25 points and Giannis Antetokounmpo 23 with the highlight play of the game, a flying billboard dunk over Zach LaVine that culminated a 17-4 run to open the second half.

Former Bull and pantomime wrestler Robin Lopez, reclining near the bench, fell into what appeared like full cardiac arrest as the arena erupted with Antetokounmpo's spectacle. The Bulls, though, were the ones mostly unable to be revived, sliced up and operated on by an efficient Bucks offense.

That show stopper slam dunk into a Boylen-sprint timeout gave Milwaukee a 72-56 lead. Any vision the Bulls had in taking down this Bucks team disappeared in the subsequent blizzard of drives, dunks and depression that became a 24-point Milwaukee lead early in the fourth quarter.

"They're the No. 1 team in the East," noted Kris Dunn. "They're loaded from starters to the bench and have a lot of guys with experience. There are a bunch of guys over there who have played 10 years in the league. That helps. They understand the game and their system. It's tough to get stops and we didn't get them; they made us pay.

"Everybody is pissed off," Dunn added. "You should be. We've been playing well and I feel like Milwaukee gave us a little bit of humble pie."

Which never is particularly enjoyable with a brat and a beer.

The Bucks are 30-5. The Bulls fell to 13-21 and host the Utah Jazz Thursday.

The Bulls got 19 points from LaVine, but he was chased and pressured and double and triple teamed into seven of 23 shooting. He didn't get much help. Coby White off the bench had 18 points, nine with a trio of threes in just over a minute early in the second quarter. That brought the Bulls within 35-32 after trailing 8-0 to start the game and 31-20 at the end of the first quarter. White had 13 second quarter points and a crowd gaping crossover drive for a score in which his usually blank stare melted into a scream of delight. With nine second quarter points on three of five threes from Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls appeared to be matching up with the best.

It's not something they'd been doing much this season, 1-11 against teams with winning records before playing the Bucks.

"We've shown we can play with anybody," said Markkanen. "We've got to do it for 48 minutes to actually be in the game. We can't have those lapses like we had in the third quarter. We're capable of getting those wins and now we just have to do it."

Though Markkanen has regained his shooting stroke and was five of nine on threes, he played just 25 minutes as he's endured flu and stomach problems the last few days. Wendell Carter Jr. with 10 points and 11 rebounds left the court early in the first quarter with what he said was stomach issues. He said it wouldn't help anyone future appetite to be more detailed.

Perhaps not about the Bulls play, either, as the Bucks had nine blocks, four by Robin Lopez, a 59-43 rebounding edge, 29 assists, 50 inside points and 24-8 on free throw attempts. The Bulls did some early complaining and Tomas Satoransky got a technical foul for it. But the Bulls attempted 24 threes in the first half, and the referees aren't going to gift a team free shots when they're mostly pulling up for 28 footers.

"We had a good second quarter," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "We got ourselves back in the game and battled back. I thought they punched us pretty hard in the third and took control the game. I didn't like the way we responded and that's what I talked to the team about after the game. We got to respond better in those situations."

The Bucks actually were reminiscent of the way the champion Bulls played in the 1990s.

Those Bulls would go on the road against an overmatched opponent hoping to make them their statement game. They'd tinker with the team in the first half in sort of a let's-see-what-you've-got manner. Then they'd make a few tweaks and take control after halftime.

The Bucks handled these Bulls similarly, pressuring on defense and strategically dropping off the weaker scorers to surround LaVine. It was always Phil Jackson's philosophy, and you see it with Bill Belichick in the NFL. You take out the opponent's best player and then see how they can adjust.

The Bucks' personnel also mirrors those Bulls to some extent with the league MVP—Antetokounmpo should get his second straight this season—and a high level running mate who is talented, but not someone who can carry a team. That's Middleton for the Bucks like Scottie Pippen was for the Bulls, Middleton being more of a scorer and Pippen a facilitator and defender. Otherwise the Bucks don't really have anyone else you'd say would be a difference maker for your team. But they have one of the league's top five coaches in Mike Budenholzer, players that complement the star, and a reliable, patterned offense which relies on considerable movement and interior passing to exploit mismatches. The Bucks shoot a lot of threes with born again bomber Brook Lopez. But they can adjust, which did they after one of 14 on threes in the first half. Middleton then blitzed the Bulls with mid range jumpers, which did count and kept adding to the Bulls deficit.

"They were more physical (to start the third quarter)," said Dunn. "We couldn't get a stop, we couldn't buy a bucket. Our best offense is when we are in transition; that's when we get stops and are able to get out and run. We couldn't do that. They're long they're athletic; they're smart. That's a very experienced team and they understand how we play and how to guard us."

Without Otto Porter Jr., who still apparently is weeks away from even being examined again, the Bulls finally seemed to discover some continuity and approach this month with a defensive-oriented team featuring Dunn at point guard and Carter at center. So the Bucks defenders dropped off Dunn and Carter, both reluctant shooters, concentrating on LaVine. With Markkanen's illness combined with an ongoing effort to find a bigger role for Thaddeus Young, Markkanen sat long stretches. Young was two of eight for five points, and he has been a somewhat questionable fit at times for the offensive system. The Bucks ignored him also so that anytime LaVine drove, there were three or four defenders in front. LaVine did have five assists, but he'd often pass to someone open who didn't seem to want to shoot.

"You're in a choice and we've had this situation before. Do you put him off the ball?" Boylen said about Dunn. "We need him defensively, we need his playmaking, we need his heart on our team. He's a big part of our team. Do you put him off the ball and they shrink off him? Or do you put him on the ball and you hope he can make some plays and they guard him? That's the dilemma with that situation, so we did a little both. They executed their game plan and we struggled to score. So we'll look at it, work on it and grow with it. But Kris Dunn is a big part of this team and we'll learn from that."

Though it was hardly only Dunn with Carter missing both his threes and scoring off some of his five offensive rebounds and Young somewhat uncertain. Boylen substituted Ryan Arcidiacono for Dunn after the Bucks went ahead by 16. Arcidiacono, a good shooter, made a nice runner and drew a charge. But with the Bulls smaller and slower, the Bucks scored on six of their next seven possessions to lead by 18 after three quarters. It was 40-25 Bucks for the third quarter, 71 percent shooting with nine assists on 15 baskets and five of eight threes. The Bucks had just one more free throw attempt than the Bulls and outscored them by 15.

Markkanen got back in three minutes into the fourth quarter. But the Bulls were trailing 105-81 after a Kyle Korver three by then and Markkanen's quick three merely helped keep Antetokounmpo in the game another three minutes.

"I think we've just got to trust in ourselves," said Dunn. "I feel we have a really good team here. We have a lot of different pieces, a lot of talent. We have to put it together in the sense of going out there and competing at a high level. Now we have to be able to take that and get back to the drawing board and get back to work."